Reflecting on the storied careers of Irish soccer greats, Green Giants is a feature that will be written by SWAI members, tapping into their knowledge, experience and interaction with some of the best players to pull on a Republic of Ireland jersey.
This latest profile is on former midfielder Johnny Giles.
By Sean Creedon
I am always amazed at the number of Irish people who are obsessed with various English football clubs. I suppose there was a time in the late 60s and earlier 70s, just after I came to work in Dublin, that I took a great interest in Leeds United. However, I don’t think I was ever heard say anything like: ‘‘We are away to Manchester United on Saturday.’’
We are all influenced by our elders and one of my bosses in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in the GPO was a big Leeds fan. P.J. Collins was his name and he loved Leeds, especially their Dublin-born midfielder Johnny Giles. P.J. lived in Phibsboro and used to enjoy going to Dalymount Park to see the Republic of Ireland in action at a time when there was no need for tickets; all you had to do was join the queue at the stiles on Connacht Street or at the School End.
Sometimes we worked night shifts in the Telegraph Office on the third floor of the GPO and my abiding memory is of the postman coming back to the office around 1am with the Sunday papers and us young lads devouring the sports pages. One result always seemed to jump out: Leeds United 2 (Giles, Lorimer), Opposition 0. Since then I have always kept an eye on the Irish players in England, without ever really ‘supporting’ any club.
Being good Catholic boys when we had to work nights shifts or early Sunday morning duties, we were allowed time off to go to Mass. So imagine walking across O’Connell Street to the Pro Cathedral and seeing Giles and other Irish internationals also attending after getting the boat home on Saturday night, having earlier played for their clubs on Saturday afternoon. An no, we didn’t look for autographs while the Mass was on! Later when he became Ireland player/manager Giles was to change that practice by arranging home games for Wednesdays, so that all the Irish players would be available.
I suppose one of the great mysteries is why Manchester United allowed Giles move to Leeds shortly after featuring at outside right on the team that beat Leicester City in the 1963 FA Cup final. In his book John Giles, A Football Man, written in conjunction with Declan Lynch, he admitted that United manager Matt Busby was not really a fan of his and after being dropped for the first league game of the 1963-64 season, Giles asked for a transfer on a Tuesday and two days later agreed to join second division Leeds.
Giles told his wife Anne that he was ‘going to haunt’ Busby and prove him wrong. He claimed that about six years later Busby admitted that allowing the Dubliner leave Old Trafford was the biggest mistake of his life. In the meantime, Giles became a top-class midfielder with Leeds and it was often said that he could deliver a pass on a sixpence. And when Don Revie left Leeds for the England job he recommended that Giles should replace him – such was his influence. The Leeds board went for Brian Clough instead.
In the early 70s, Leeds were dubbed the ‘bridesmaids’ as they had some hard luck stories in the league and also lost the 1973 FA Cup final to Sunderland. But I prefer to remember the good days of Giles and Billy Bremner controlling their midfield and that famous 7-0 win over Southampton in March 1972 when Leeds players played keep football. Thanks to YouTube I was able to relive those glory days once again as Leeds destroyed Manchester United 5-1, a United team that included George Best and Bobby Charlton. Giles was in the middle of it all; a pleasure to watch, spraying passes around with both feet and any time a Leeds player was in trouble, they only had to look up and see he was there to take the ball from them.
Giles became a legend at the Yorkshire club as they began to rack up trophies. During his 12 years with the club, they won the following: Second division title in 1964, FA Cup in 1972, Division one titles in 1968-69 and 19773-74, Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1968 and 1971 and League Cup in 1968.
Years later I learned that not everybody shared my enthusiasm for that great Leeds team. I remember the late Con Houlihan once comparing them to highway men in the Wild West, who came to town, robbed the bank and rode off into the sunset. Yet, you would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t agree that Giles was a truly special player and whatever you say about that Leeds team, their midfield maestro was class personified.
Giles enjoyed those days at Leeds immensely and described his exit in the summer of 1975 as ‘one of the saddest days of my life.’ By then he was on the way to West Bromwich Albion, where he became player/manager and led the Baggies back into Division One with several Irish players onboard: Mick Martin, Ray Treacy and Paddy Mulligan. When he came back home to Dublin in July 1977 to take over as player/manager of Shamrock Rovers, he was followed by Treacy, Mulligan and Eamon Dunphy, who would later become his regular colleague as an analyst on RTÉ television. Success came quickly with The Hoops, who beat Sligo Rovers in the 1978 FAI Cup final thanks to an injury-time goal from Steve Lynex at the end of the first half.
One constant throughout Giles’ career was his determination to keep on improving. It was something that he introduced at Rovers and he tried to encourage all League of Ireland clubs to upgrade their playing surfaces. However, his plans to set up a youth academy at Milltown didn’t really work as young Irish players will it seems, always want to try their luck in England.
Having earlier played for Philadelphia Fury, Giles spent two seasons managing Vancouver Whitecaps in the old North American Soccer League where he was named Coach of the Year, before returning again to West Brom for another spell as manager in February 1984. No longer playing, he was focusing solely on management, but it didn’t really work out and he quit in September 1985, saying he was disillusioned with the attitude shown by directors and owners of football clubs.
On the international front, Giles got off to a great start when he scored on his debut against Sweden at Dalymount Park in November 1959. He went on to win 59 caps, captaining the team on several occasions and scored five goals. When Liam Tuohy quit as Ireland manager in 1973, Seán Thomas took charge for one game before Giles was appointed player/manager – his first game was a 1-0 win over Poland at Dalymount Park, four days after Poland’s famous 1-1 draw against England at Wembley.
As mentioned earlier John insisted that the FAI played home game on Wednesdays and he brought much better organisation to the Ireland team. The only criticism would have been that at times he might have tried to do too much. I remember Tommy Docherty, when working as an analyst on a game between England and Ireland at Wembley, joking that he wouldn’t be surprised if Giles also drove the team bus!
Under Giles, Ireland were unlucky not to qualify for the 1978 World Cup finals and ironically one of his party pieces was to sing Don’t Cry for me Argentina. He stepped down as Ireland manager in April 1980 after 37 games in charge. I think it’s fair to say that he was wary of the media during his time as manager of Rovers and Ireland, but he has mellowed in recent years. So much in fact that he has become one of the country’s top football pundits on RTÉ and Newstalk 106FM.
So the question needs to be asked: Who was the greatest Irish player of all time? I have to be honest and say my vote would go to George Best, but Giles was definitely one of the best from the Republic. He did it all at club level and in a green jersey for his country to the extent that he will always be in contention for top spot in polls of the greatest Irish player.
I still keep an eye out for the Leeds results on Saturday afternoons, but with Sky Sports and various apps there is no longer any need to wait for the Sunday papers and that familiar result… Leeds United 2 (Giles, Lorimer), Opposition 0.